Monday, January 27, 2014

Television Review: BODY BAGS (1993, John Carpenter & Tobe Hooper)

Stars: 4.2 of 5.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Tag-line: "Zip yourself in tight!"
Notable Cast or Crew:  Stacy Keach (FAT CITY, NEBRASKA), Robert Carradine (REVENGE OF THE NERDS, THE LONG RIDERS), Mark Hamill (STAR WARS, CORVETTE SUMMER), David Warner (WAXWORK, TRON), Alex Datcher (PASSENGER 57, NETHERWORLD), Twiggy (THE BOYFRIEND),  Deborah Harry (of Blondie and TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE), Tom Arnold (TRUE LIES, SONS OF ANARCHY), Peter Jason (DEADWOOD, PRINCE OF DARKNESS), David Naughton (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, MIDNIGHT MADNESS), George "Buck" Flower (THEY LIVE, THE FOG, BACK TO THE FUTURE), John Agar (TARANTULA, MIRACLE MILE), Charles Napier (THE BLUES BROTHERS, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS).  With cameos by Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, Greg Nicotero, Roger Corman.  Written by Billy Brown and Dan Angel (GOOSEBUMPS the TV series).  Special effects by Rick Baker, Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger  Produced by Carpy, his missus Sandy King, and Dan Angel.  Music by Carpy and Jim Lang (IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, RANSOM).  Cinematography by Gary Kibbe (A FEW GOOD MEN, THEY LIVE).
Best One-liner:  "Natural causes, natural causes, natural causes...  I hate natural causes!  Give me a big stab wound to poke at and then I'm happy."  –John Carpenter as "The Coroner"

[Note that this is not intended as a continuation of "Poor Man's Carpy," as though that series will live to see the light of day again, BODY BAGS is in no way indicative of a poor man's anything– this is vintage "Forgotten Carpy."]

In a familiar, darkened alley, two Thunderbird-swilling cineastes make small-talk:

"Watcha got there?"
–"BODY BAGS."
"What's that?"
–"Only the best omnibus horror movie you've never seen."
"That's a bold claim.  Put it in terms I can understand."
–"Not as good as CREEPSHOW.  Better than CREEPSHOW 2.  Slightly better than TRILOGY OF TERROR.  About on par with TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE."
"Why have I never heard of this?"
–"Well, back when HBO was on the rise and TALES FROM THE CRYPT was enjoying widespread popularity, Showtime decided it was time to get into the horror anthology game and enlisted the likes of John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper.  Carpenter ultimately decided that he couldn't make the work he wanted to for the budget they were offering, so Showtime called it even and made a three-part anthology TV movie."
"Who hosts it?  A rip-off Cryptkeeper?"
–"Funny you should ask.  Why don't you sit down for a spell?"
"Why?"
–"Trust me, you're gonna want to be sitting down for this."
"Okay, so who's their Cryptkeeper?"
–"He's called 'The Coroner,' and it's none other than.... John Carpenter himself! 

Wearing scrubs, ghoulish makeup, and a sort of Beetlejuice-ish demeanor, Carpy does not disappoint as he mugs about, dropping one-liners, handling disembodied heads, and the like.  He's no actor, but it doesn't matter, because he's having fun."

He's also their MGM lion!

"Nice!"
–"Yeah, right?  Check it out– here he's making himself a martini out of formaldehyde."

"You said there's ghoul makeup on him?"
–"Yes..."
"Isn't that what Carpy looks like all the time?"
–"Why don't you just shut it."
"Hey, I'm just telling it like it is."
–"Drop it."
"But–"
 –"Annnyway, there are three segments and a frame story.  'The Gas Station,'  'Hair,' and the morgue frame are all directed by Carpenter.  The third segment, 'Eye,' is directed by Tobe Hooper.  All the segments are written by Dan Angel and Billy Brown, whose careers as R.L. Stine TV-adapters should give you a pretty good idea of their strengths and their weaknesses.  Angel, Carpy, and Sandy King (Carpy's missus) produced everything, though, so it has a very uniform feel."
"What about the music?  Those TV people didn't clip Carpy's wings, did they?"
–"It's Carpenter and Jim Lang (his collaborator on IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS), so it's definitely a more rockin' soundtrack, as opposed to one of pulsing dread like PRINCE OF DARKNESS.  They keep it light for the most part (I'd compare it to the high-reverb drums and roaming bass of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA), dipping into TWIN PEAKS-ish jazz for the comedic moments.  But it's certainly capable of conveying a darker atmosphere when necessary, sometimes veering into CHRISTINE-ish territory or something similar to Mike Oldfield's 'Tubular Bells' from THE EXORCIST."
"So it feels cinematic?"
–"Oh yes.  And Gary Kibbe (Carpenter's cinematographer in his post-Dean Cundey era, from 1987-2001) provides very workmanlike, evocative visuals, using wide-angle lenses and dolly set-ups to great effect.  It doesn't feel like something intended for the small screen, not by a long shot."
"Sounds pretty good.  Why don't ya tell me about the segments?"
–"Alrighty.  So the first one is called 'The Gas Station,' and yep, it takes place entirely at a gas station.  In tone, it feels a lot like a condensed version of HALLOWEEN (Haddonfield, Illinois even gets a mention!), but it's not too shocking, just a straightforward, well-made suspense piece with those two key elements: a slasher and an unsuspecting lassie.  Alex Datcher is our likable heroine, a college gal who's first time pulling the night-shift solo proves to be a memorable one.
 
The Carradine named Robert shows her the ropes (it's got that nice blue-collar cred that you see in everything from THE THING to VAMPIRES), and Carpenter uses a great economy of storytelling to
introduce the characters, the rules, and the spatial relationships. 
As her shift begins, we're treated to a rogue's gallery of horror cameos and familiar faces, and it almost begins to develop a quirky, Jim Jarmusch-style flavor of 'late nite slice-of-life,' like NIGHT ON EARTH or MYSTERY TRAIN.  There's 'Buck' Flower, playing (predictably) a scary hobo:
a sleazy Peter Jason wearing a brilliantly awful tie (just as bad as Chris Sarandon's in BORDELLO OF BLOOD, for sure) and urging our heroine to party:
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON's David Naughton as what seems to be an unassuming, decent guy:
and Wes Craven
as a creepy fellow buying himself some cigarettes."
"Oooh, Wes Craven is sooo scary.  I'm afraid he's gonna teach me some liberal arts or something."
–"Oh, hush.  Then it kicks into high gear, and Sam Raimi gets a cameo as a corpse tumbling out of a locker:
 "Aieee!"
–"I must make an aside to mention that in the special features, Carpenter speaks at length about the production, saying 'I thought Wes was especially smooth in his part,' for instance, and of course, he knows everyone's name– except Sam Raimi, whom he refers to as 'Uh...Spider-Man.'  I find this for some reason to be fantastic."
–"Ha!"
"Anywho, then the shit hits the fan and doesn't let up.  I won't spoil how it ends, but it has a nice visceral payoff while remaining entirely uncomplicated."
–"Sounds pretty good.  What's next?"
"Probably my favorite segment of the three:  'Hair.'  It's played more for laughs than the others, but it's got some freakier elements to it, too.  One of my favorite actors, Stacy Keach, plays a man undergoing a midlife crisis:  he's losing his hair and letting it ruin his life.
 
For what is ostensibly a 'comedy' segment, Keach infuses his role with an incredible pathos– his misplaced anger, helpless frustration, and existential sadness play effortlessly across his face.
(Keach and Carpenter got along quite well, with Keach comparing Carpenter in the special features to John Huston.  They'd work together again on ESCAPE FROM L.A., with Keach taking on the Lee Van Cleef role.)
Keach tries everything– hairpieces, posh stylists, painted on hair– until he sees genre legend David Warner in an infomercial, promising the results that Keach has found elusive:
 
 
He makes an appointment and meets with Dr. Warner and his lovely nurse, Debbie Harry (of Blondie!) who, in an apparent in-joke, does not have her trademark blonde locks.  Coupled with VIDEODROME and her TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE appearances, I think we have to refer to Debbie as a bona fide genre actress!

Warner's having a blast, too– you get the sense that they were on set for a day or so, and just went for it."

"I do loves me some David Warner."
–"Yeah.  I wish he'd get more high-profile work.  I thought for sure TITANIC would have opened some doors for him.  Eh.  Annnyway, Keach receives the hair transplant,

and his childlike glee could move mountains.  Keach is simply phenomenal.  I'd like to take a moment to plug FAT CITY, too, a Huston film that he's masterful in.
"Stay on topic!  So what happens?"
–"As if I'd tell ya.  Let's just say that the hair may have a mind of its own..."

"Well, now I'm intrigued."
–"Good.  So that brings us to our final segment, 'Eye,' the Tobe Hooper one.  It's by far the weakest, but I don't think that's entirely Hooper's fault.  Mark Hamill plays a baseball player with a mustache and a Southern accent who gets into a car wreck and loses his eye.

 Luckily, his doctors (including Roger Corman, pictured center)

have developed a technique for eye transplants, and they think he's a candidate for a new and exciting transplant surgery."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa.  Mark Hamill plays a guy who gets in a car accident and needs reconstructive surgery to save his career?  Don't you think that hits a little close to home?"
–"Yeah, I suppose so.  But Hamill's a trouper.  He even shows his balls in this movie."
"WHAT?  Why are you telling me this?"
–"I don't know.  It seems like it'd be a trivia question.  'What movie does Luke Skywalker show his balls in?'"
"Correct me if I'm wrong, this segment is called 'Eye,' not 'Eyeballs.'  Right?"
–"Yep.  It's just that thing where if you see something traumatizing, you have to tell someone else to lessen your own trauma.  It's this damn HD era, really."
"Well, thanks a lot.  Moving on..."
–"Well, after the eye transplant, he starts wearing sweatpants and having eerie visions and mistreating his wife Twiggy."

"Twiggy?  There's some pretty weird casting in this movie."
–"Yeah, there really is.  In the special features, Sandy King says that some of the Carpenter stable came from her connection to Walter Hill's THE LONG RIDERS, where she was script supervisor.  This includes Stacy Keach, Peter Jason, and Robert Carradine.  As for the others, I have no idea."
"Wow, so Peter Jason is in six John Carpenter movies, just because of a random connection on THE LONG RIDERS.  Pretty cool."
 –"Yeah.  Anyway, Hamill tries to uncover where the unholy eye came from, and..."
 
"Well, where did it come from?  Lemme guess.  A convict that was executed?  Right?  Am I right?"
–"Oh, hush.  I'm not saying.  Also, his eye surgeon has the vanity plate, 'I BALL,' which I thought was worth mentioning."
 
"Fascinating." 
–"Yeah.  Then we round things out with the frame story, which closes with morgue attendant cameos by Tom Arnold and Tobe Hooper and delivers one final twist."
 
"Nice.  This all sounds up my alley."
–"I highly recommend it.  It's out on a new(ish) DVD/Blu-ray release from Scream Factory, and I gotta say, it looks great.  So let me leave ya with one last sentiment, courtesy of The Coroner:
 
NIGHTY-NIGHT!"

 -Sean Gill

7 comments:

Mike B. said...

Holy crap! How is there an omnibus film involving Carpenter that I completely missed?? I can only assume that I got this mixed up with the Jeff Fahey vehicle "Body Parts" and never bothered to check it out. Good lord does this look sweet! Carpy, Hooper, George 'Buck' Flower! The names among names! I've got some serious catching up to do, thanks for making me aware of this! And BTW, I've almost finished season one of Tales From The Crypt, and you were definitely right on the money; I can't believe I've ignored it this long. Thanks again!

Mario A. said...

Looks Good! Mark Hamill having severe eye problems. Kinda reminds me of Fulci's famous eye scene from Zombi 2.

See you.

Sean Gill said...

Mike,
Heh– glad to be of service. You'll have to tell me what you think when you get to BODY BAGS. And happy to see you're enjoying CRYPT. From Season 1, my fave is probably "Collection Completed" although the Walter Hill/William Sadler pilot is a bold and terrific half hour of television.

Mario,
Indeed– Fulci-eye-trauma aficionados will find a lot to like here. Good to see ya!

Francisco Gonzalez said...

Okay that's it, I'm searching this one out! Looks like fun!

Sean Gill said...

Francisco,

Yeah, I think you'll dig it!

J.D. Lafrance said...

Forgotten Carpy indeed! So glad that the fine folks at Scream Factory resurrected this little gem. Certainly not vintage Carpenter, but still entertaining nonetheless.

I agree with you that the Keach segment is definitely the strongest. Keach really commits to the role and it is great to see that he has no vanity, which is crucial to this segment.

Sean Gill said...

J.D.,

Oh, definitely. I'd seen this five or six years ago in 10 minute chunks on YouTube, so I was overjoyed to see it finally had a proper, uncut release. (The out-of-print Artisan disc was censored by 5 or so minutes, I believe.)